Viral videos promoting dangerous eating disorders are spreading seemingly unchecked by TikTok, even though they explicitly violate the platform’s community guidelines and supposed commitment to tackling medical misinformation. This content is especially dangerous because of TikTok’s young audience and the harmful (and sometimes deadly) effects of the products and behaviors being promoted.
Many of the viral videos encourage users to consistently use diet tea as a weight loss hack. The two teas, 3 Ballerina Tea and China Slim Tea, are praised by some users for allegedly causing quick weight loss. The reason? These two products are both laxative teas, something the video creators do not explicitly acknowledge -- nor do they warn users about the potentially dangerous effects.
Senna, an herb with laxative properties, is the main ingredient in both teas. Even though users encourage the regular use of the products, Senna is unsafe if taken for more than two weeks or in high doses. In fact, long-term use of Senna can reportedly cause “heart function disorders, muscle weakness, liver damage, and other harmful effects.”
According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), laxative abuse is a tactic used “to eliminate unwanted calories, lose weight, ‘feel thin,’ or ‘feel empty’ through the repeated, frequent use of laxatives.” The effects of laxative abuse are serious and can include severe dehydration and vital organ damage; it can even lead to colon cancer and sometimes death.
Although the creators are not acknowledging the potential harms of these products, some users are providing personal anecdotes about their experience with the tea, warning others. “I used this when my ed [eating disorder] was at its worst,” wrote one user under a video promoting 3 Ballerina Tea. “It permanently damaged my digestive system n put me in the hospital pls be safe.”
The virality of this content is no surprise. Even though multiple news outlets have emphasized the prevalence of content promoting eating disorders on TikTok, the platform continues to fumble in handling the serious issue with the care it deserves; Media Matters even highlighted the two teas in a February 2021 report about TikTok’s eating disorder content problem. However, the company has not significantly or consistently addressed the viral misinformation and, subsequently, it has spread to millions more.
As but one example, the hashtag “#chinaslimtea” has over 34 million views and “#ballerinatea” has over 5 million views. Other affiliated hashtags have racked up millions of views as well. These figures are far from reflecting the content’s total spread because not every video promoting the tea includes hashtags.
“[You] get some China Slim Tea, OK. You fucking drink this shit for three days, bitch, OK -- not only that your intestines will twist and turn, your whole intestantine will come out too, and you will have a flat stomach and be pretty forever,” says the narrator.
Using the same sound, another user uploaded a video of the China Slim Tea and captioned the post: “Start weight 182.6 started drinking tea 175.2 weight in as of now 166.2.”
Some creators are pushing back against the dangerous trend. For example, one person used the same sound and captioned the video “Laxatives are dangerous and won’t help you lose weight so let’s not jump start people’s bulimia yeah! #chinaslimtea.” The overlaid text read: “People after they promote laxative teas on a kid’s app and refuse to take down their video bc they want a grain of clout.” But, given the high number of young users consuming this dangerous content -- often without the tools to determine whether it’s trustworthy -- it is unsustainable and ineffective for TikTok to rely on individual users to debunk these viral videos.
According to Omnicore Agency, “roughly 50% of TikTok’s global audience is under the age of 34 with 32.5% aged between 10 and 19,” with approximately 41% between the ages of 16 and 24 years old. Given this context, it is notable that ABC, an England-based charity that specializes in research on eating disorders, found that “young people between the ages of 14 and 25 are most at risk” -- and that the average age of “onset of Anorexia Nervosa is 16 - 17” while the average age of “onset of Bulimia Nervosa is 18 or 19 years.”
The harmful impact of social media platforms promoting or glorifying disordered eating has been studied before. TikTok’s pro-eating disorder content problem parallels that of Tumblr, a blogging social media platform. In its prime, Tumblr was known for promoting unattainable body standards and boosting dangerous eating disorder content -- from weight loss tricks to photographs of extremely thin individuals to extreme diets. Many studies have been conducted since, highlighting the platform’s role in perpetuating eating disorder culture to a vulnerable age group. There is concern that TikTok is not only taking on a similar role, but has become worse.
Because TikTok’s algorithm is hyper tailored to individual users, and the platform’s “For You” page delivers content to individuals based on detected interests, dangerous content can be easily fed to viewers without their realizing. This means that content promoting eating disorders is being sent to young users, despite the company’s community guidelines prohibiting:
- “Content that depicts, promotes, normalizes, or glorifies self-harm or eating disorders.”
- “Content that provides instructions on how to engage in self-harm or eating disorders.”
- “Content that depicts, promotes, normalizes, or glorifies eating disorders or other dangerous weight loss behaviors associated with eating disorders.”
- “Medical misinformation that can cause harm to an individual's physical health.”
In spite of its own rules, TikTok continues to amplify and recommend videos promoting laxative teas as a weight loss solution. This not only validates or encourages eating disorders, but also provides specific instruction on how to engage in life-threatening diet habits. Furthermore, claiming these teas cause weight loss or detox the body is medical misinformation; it’s deliberately deceitful and not grounded in science. In fact, other platforms have noted the dangers of advertising such products -- Instagram restricted posts promoting diet teas to users under 18 in 2019 because of faulty health claims.
These videos and hashtags have earned millions of views, despite the threat they pose to young, vulnerable viewers. While TikTok does have policies prohibiting this harmful content, it consistently fails to follow through and actually enables the posts to go viral. TikTok’s negligence is failing its young user base and making them more susceptible to avoidable harm.